This article was originally published on January 6, 2021. On June 30, the NCAA announced college athletes are now able to profit off of their names, images and likenesses under new interim guidelines.
When Leah Clapper, a 20-year-old communications major and gymnast at the University of Florida, started her food blog, Zest and Finesse, she wanted to combine her passion for nutrition, athletics, and marketing into an impressive line on her resume.
After more than two years of posting photos of tantalizing breakfast bowls and protein-packed snacks, Clapper received her first business inquiry: A local Gainesville restaurant loved her blog and asked if she would promote their business on Instagram in exchange for payment. Clapper was elated.
But she politely declined.
According to the strict rules governing student-athletes, she could have faced severe penalties, such as being dismissed from school, for profiting off of her blog, the success of which stems partially from her status as a student-athlete. Turning down the business stung, but her hands were tied.
“The offer is exactly the kind of thing you hope for when starting a project like Zest and Finesse, so it was painful to have to deny it,” Clapper told Insider. “But those are the rules.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college athletics and a non-profit organization that generated $19 billion in 2019, enforces these rules. But after decades of forbidding student-athletes from profiting off their labor or likeness, there is mounting external pressure on the association to walk back its decades-old policy.
Last April, an NCAA board of governors voted to move forward with plans allowing student-athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL). While specifics are still in negotiation, and the vote scheduled for this month has been delayed, it’s still possible that in this calendar year, student-athletes will be able to profit off their personal brands for the first time in history. The NCAA did not respond to requests for comment.
This development marks a monumental turning point for student-athletes. The change in NIL rules will open the door for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurial undergraduates like Clapper to turn their image into income, a paradigm shift that will unlock millions, if not billions, in potential revenue.
In the pro sports realm, endorsements account for billions in revenue a year, with star athletes like LeBron James and Roger Federer making far more money from their publicity rights than from their salary, according to previous reporting from Insider. Analysts predict that individual student-athletes, depending on a variety of factors, could make anywhere from $500 – $2 million a year off of their NIL.
This potential goldrush is not limited to student-athletes, either. Sports agents, marketing agencies, and other third-party businesses have all begun preparing themselves for the opportunity; almost overnight, brand-new markets will open up in the college-athletics landscape.
Analysts that spoke with Insider were reluctant to size this massive new market, but experts and students agree: College athletics will never be the same.
The NCAA’s shifting fortunes
The relationship between the NCAA and its massive unpaid labor force — there are nearly 500,000 student-athletes in the association currently — has attracted scrutiny since the organization was founded in 1906.
In his memoir, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes,” the father of the modern NCAA, Walter Byers, said that the iconic phrase “student-athlete” was invented in the 1950s to shield the association from legal liability. The ambiguity of the term, which classifies college athletes as more than students but less than professionals, has helped universities avoid paying workers’ compensation claims to injured athletes or salaries to healthy ones, according to Byers.
Labor-rights advocates like California state senator Nancy Skinner, who sponsored the California bill pushing for NIL monetization, compared student-athletes to other talented undergraduates, like a film major with a popular YouTube channel. If these students can trade their services on the free market in exchange for payment, advocates like Skinner wonder, why can’t student-athletes?
Her opponents say that college athletes must remain “amateur” in status, because paying student-athletes — whether directly through compensation or indirectly through NIL rights — could give big-budget schools a recruiting advantage and encourage athletes to focus on money rather than their education.
Allowing schools to employ athletes would be a mistake, said former NCAA executive Oliver Luck, in 2015. Paying college athletes “would distract in a very significant way from pursuing what they really need to pursue — an education.”
But this year, the NCAA has found itself besieged by a number of forces that present a serious threat to its continued existence as the amateur organization we’ve come to know.
In the spring, the Supreme Court will hear a case exploring antitrust allegations against the NCAA for attempting to cap education-related compensation and benefits for student-athletes. Meanwhile, five states, including athletic powerhouses California and Florida, have passed legislation designed to give student-athletes the right to monetize their NIL, a move that could undermine the association’s authority by turning NIL rights into a state-by-state issue. The Florida legislation comes into effect July 2021, while the California measure will not until January 2023. Similar bills have been proposed in more than 20 other states.
Considering this backdrop, critics like antitrust economist Andy Schwarz, a co-founder of the Professional Collegiate League who helped Skinner craft the California bill, don’t see recent efforts from the NCAA as good-faith measures designed to undo historical faults. Instead, they say they are meant to placate the rising tide of criticism threatening the association.
After all, under the NCAA’s new rules, student-athletes still won’t be paid. Instead, they will be able to make money through activities like coaching, endorsing products, signing autographs, and crowdfunding. Rather than compensating the student-athletes, the NCAA is instead returning to them the right to make money off themselves.
“The NCAA is very careful not to use the word ‘rights,'” said Schwarz. “They want to treat it as a privilege, because if you’re getting nothing and someone gives you 5 cents on the dollar, shouldn’t you be grateful? But if it’s a right and they’re essentially taking 95% of your right’s value, then you’re being exploited. What amount less than 100% of your rights is enough?”
Even these approved activities will be heavily regulated: Student-athletes can’t use school “intellectual property,” such as logos; they can’t engage in an activity that conflicts with NCAA rules, such as gambling; and they can’t participate in any activity that conflicts with existing institutional sponsorship arrangements, among other restrictions.
These limitations, especially the one barring student-athletes from striking deals that conflict with existing institutional sponsorships, will allow the NCAA to maintain many of its most lucrative sources of revenue, such as partnerships with brands like Nike and Under Armour that sign multimillion-dollar contracts with universities.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and a researcher on the business of sports, says that the association is likely happy to give student-athletes their NIL rights because it allows them to retain control over the major sources of revenue. In other words, compared with legislation being proposed by states like New Jersey, which would give student-athletes a percentage of total revenue, Zimbalist thinks the NCAA would rather sacrifice a slice of its earnings if it meant preserving the rest of the system.
“Even though the NCAA has taken a step towards allowing NIL income for athletes, it’s a small step, and it’s something that they are tightly controlling,” said Zimbalist.
As these debates and legal struggles play out in courts across the country, student-athletes have turned their attention to the only aspect of the issue they have control over: putting their personal brands to work.
The field of play
At Boise State University, senior cross-country runner Lara Hamilton serves on the school’s name, image, and likeness task force, where she works with her student-athlete peers and school representatives to offer feedback on NIL policy.
The task force has focused on identifying what opportunities the rule change presents for student-athletes, Hamilton says. She, like many of her teammates, is excited by the prospect of being able to host training camps, make money coaching, and convert her 6,100 Instagram followers into potential clients.
However, her work with the task force has made it clear that schools might need to provide education and training to help student-athletes understand the complex rules governing how they can make money. Hamilton is graduating in June, which will free her from the grip of the NCAA, but she has considered staying involved with Boise State athletics to help other student-athletes navigate the legal minutiae of monetizing their personal brand.
For instance, student-athletes will be allowed to run coaching camps, but they will be forbidden from using school training-facilities — which count as intellectual property — when doing so, making logistics a challenge. Other issues, similarly nitpicky in nature, are nonetheless important: Could a student-athlete like Hamilton serve Gatorade at such a camp, given that Boise State is sponsored by Powerade? (They could not, says Hamilton.)
Some schools have already begun efforts aimed at helping educate student-athletes about how they can and cannot legally monetize their NIL. At the University of Texas at Austin, professor Mark Bunting was recently named the “entrepreneurship coach” for the school’s football team. Bunting will be involved in preparing football players for the business opportunities they can take, a role Hamilton believes will prove vital at any school whose student-athletes want to try their hand at entrepreneurship.
“It’s a lot more complex than first meets the eye,” said Hamilton. “Everyone thinks, ‘Name, image, likeness, so Instagram or Facebook’ — no, there’s a whole series of levels to this.”
At smaller schools, where student-athletes are less likely to command large social media followings, administrators have encouraged their entrepreneurial undergraduates to err on the side of caution when it comes to monetizing their personal brands. With less to gain and as much to lose, a legal misstep could be doubly painful.
Stefano Durante, who plays goalie on the American International College hockey team in Springfield, Massachusetts, says that he received emails over the summer notifying him of the upcoming change, but that the school’s emphasis was on patience.
“The emails talked about the rule change, but they also urged us not to get ahead of ourselves,” Durante told Insider in late 2020. “The rules might be changing next year, but this year it’s still a violation.”
Durante, prudent but undeterred, sees his social media brand as his most promising source of income, a sentiment echoed by many of the student-athletes who spoke with Insider. Durante posts photos regularly for his 1,200 Instagram followers, which he hopes will attract sponsors and attention as his reach grows.
When the pandemic struck, Kengo Aoshima, a student-athlete on the UCLA golf team, began channeling his free time into growing his Instagram. He posts regular content of himself practicing and shots from previous competitions for his 4,200 followers.
When Aoshima heard about the upcoming NIL rule change, he intensified his efforts, with an eye toward landing endorsement deals. He believes that the new NIL rules are a win-win: They prepare student-athletes for the business side of professional sports, and they give brands an affordable vehicle for reaching new audiences.
“I think it’s a great development for college sports,” said Aoshima. “I don’t know what took them so long to make this happen, but I’m glad it’s happened before I graduated.”
A new, massive market
Still eight months away from the rule change, entrepreneurs and agencies have already begun preparing to take advantage of the opportunities it will present. For the most part, this is out of necessity.
According to a set of guardrails released by the NCAA, schools are forbidden from brokering deals between athletes and the brands they want to work with. Since brands don’t have a database of available student-athletes, and because most student-athletes lack the time and know-how to make industry contacts, these new businesses are hoping to turn a profit by playing matchmaker.
Take Alumni Pros Global Sports, a sports agency founded by former NBA player Jerome Williams. With the help of a development team, Williams created a proprietary algorithm to produce an “IP score,” which the startup uses to quantify the value of student-athletes’ brands. Using this metric, Williams pairs brands with student-athletes whose IP scores meet their specifications.
While Williams’ method might be novel, the concept of treating student-athletes as influencers draws on years of precedent. Mae Karwowski, the founder of influencer marketing agency Obvious.ly, says student-athletes’ unique status makes them a massive source of untapped revenue.
“It depends on who they are and how large their following is, but a student-athlete with millions of followers could be making over $100,000, depending on how marketable they are,” Karwowski told Insider.
Her agency has used its work with cheerleaders, whose sport is not governed by NCAA rules, as a precedent for what they can expect from other student-athletes.
“We’ve done a few deals in the cheerleading space,” she said, “and those were five-figure deals for one or two posts.”
According to reporting from ESPN, a student-athlete’s earning potential varies depending on their gender, sport, reach, and method of monetization. For an all-star male athlete with more than 500,000 social media followers, estimated earning potential ranges from $500,000 – $1 million a year using social media alone. Appearances on commercials, apparel deals, and coaching offer other sources of potential revenue. For athletes with small followings, these estimates drop into the four-figure range, with experts hypothesizing that coaching camps and social media sponsorships could net them between $1,000 – $5,000 a year.
Ray Katz, cofounder of the marketing agency Collegiate Sports Management Group, says that student-athletes, in particular, tend to need fewer social followers than other influencers to turn a profit. According to Katz, this is because student-athletes tend to be social-media savvy and more relatable to their young audiences, which ultimately leads to above-average rates of post engagement — a metric that brands find appealing regardless of their reach.
This presents an opportunity to smaller brands, whose limited budgets might have historically prevented them from athlete-influencer marketing.
“Marketers that are smart, creative, innovative, and quantitative are going to win from this,” said Katz. “Marketers that rely on the clout of their big agencies aren’t going to be happy, because this is disrupting the marketplace and creating more options.”
Some startups hope to service an even more targeted need: sponsored content production. Curastory, founded by former college athlete and ESPN data scientist Tiffany Kelly, aims to help student-athletes produce videos that brands can sponsor.
“We’re able to help student-athletes that are that top 1%, but who still have one-off videos that they created that they want to monetize and post to their social media channels,” said Kelly.
Marketing agencies face another set of competitors, whose influence is likely partially responsible for the NCAA’s decision to allow monetization in the first place: creator economy platforms. Websites like Cameo, OnlyFans, and Patreon, as well as smaller competitors like Fanhouse or Kinjabi, offer student-athletes a route to monetization that takes minutes, involves no intermediaries, and pays dividends.
Unlike Instagram influencing, for which an individual typically needs at least 5,000 followers to attract a brand’s interest, these subscription or transaction-based platforms allow student-athletes to monetize a following of any size. So while superstars like Heisman winner Devonta Smith will be wooed by dozens of agencies, creator economy sites allow non-celebrities to monetize on their own terms, from the comfort of their dorm.
A watershed moment
While the effects of these changes will take years to unfold, the association’s decision to allow student-athletes to monetize their personal brands represents a line in the sand. The NCAA has long staved off significant reform by agreeing to small acts of self-correction, but never has it come this close to losing its status as an “amateur” sports organization.
And while the association, its 1,200 member schools, and the legal system determine the future of college athletics, a brand new entrepreneurial ecosystem is beginning to bloom on campuses across the country, as hundreds of thousands of young, highly motivated undergraduates hold their future more fully in their own hands.
Clapper, the Florida gymnast and aspiring nutritionist, has no idea what the next few months will hold, but the promise of turning her passion into a career has inspired her to double down on Zest and Finesse.
“I’m excited,” said Clapper. “This has never happened before.”